What is the origin of the phrase "needle in a hay stack"? Initially I thought it was a game once played but I haven't found any mention of it outside of it's idiomatic use.
The idiom in full is: "like looking for a needle in a haystack" it is based on the idea that it is very hard to find a sewing needle in a haystack (a tall pile of dry grass). It means when something is extremely difficult (or impossible) to find.
The first example of this idea in print was in the works of St. Thomas More in 1532:
"To seek out one line in his bookes would be to go look (for) a needle in a meadow."
Source: Data Hiding: Exposing Concealed Data in Multimedia, Operating Systems, Mobile Devices and Network Protocols; Michael T. Raggo, Chet Hosmer
Not only is a needle in a haystack nearly impossible to find (without a magnet), but more importantly it is very dangerous for the animals consuming the hay. It is a problem with a dire consequence if the solution is not found. We're talking about having to burn the haystack or let a horse swallow a needle. I think this is closer to the meaning of the phrase.
It appears that the origin of the phrase goes back to the 1600s. It was first recorded to be used in Don Quixote de la Mancha written from 1605-1615, which was written by Miguel de Cervantes.
I'm quite sure it wasn't a game but was implied something that was almost impossible to achieve even back in those days.
Here's the reference: http://www.businessballs.com/clichesorigins.htm
This expression is also found in Portuguese: "procurar uma agulha num palheiro". The fact that it is found in German, Italian and Portuguese as well as English would lead one to suspect that it is very old, indeed. It would be interesting to research other Indo-european languages such as Persian and Urdu to see if that expression is found there.
I found "’tis seeking a needle in a bottle of hay" in the book, The Armourer's Prentices, by Charlotte Mary Yonge, Chapter III, Published October 1883-August 1884, serialized in The English Illustrated Magazine. 1884, published by Macmillan.
I found this at http://www.gutenberg.org/dirs/etext06/arpn10h.htm
Sarah Meisner Texas
When hay was stored in stacks by the farmers many years ago! it was easy for the hay to over heat and spoil, if not dried properly before being stacked. The farmer would use long steel bars, which were called needles, at spaced out intervals along the stack and left there, the farmer could then check, at regular times by pulling the needles out, if the hay was over heating. The problem was was that if the needles position were not marked before being inserted, then it was very difficult to find the needles. I believe that is where the saying originates
The expression is the same in German and in Italian: cercare un ago in pagliaio http://de.bab.la/woerterbuch/italienisch-deutsch/ago
Perhaps it was already used in Latin.
Needle in a haystack's origin is Arabic. Part of an ancient Arabic proverb.
In doing research into the Arabic language and ancient history, I was surprised to find that many of our modern (last couple of centuries) sayings have their origins in old Arabic proverbs.
Possibly making their way into English and European languages during the Crusades.
Ancient:relating to a remote period, to a time early in history.